87. Lettuce to tigers

By Peter Fraenkel

Solzhenitsyn vigorously denounced his broadcasts to the Soviet Union. “He feeds lettuce to tigers” he said.

However when the Soviet Union collapsed and listeners could write abroad in tolerable security some thought very differently: “This is the man who brought down the regime.”

The broadcaster who attracted such conflicting assessments was Anatoly Maximovich Goldberg – the BBC’s chief commentator on Soviet affairs.

I loved the man and loved to listen to his reminiscences but I have to admit I too had some reservations about some of his commentaries – so calm, so reserved even when I thought the human rights record of the Moscow regime deserved stronger condemnation.

He had come from a turbulent background – born in one of the Baltic States, educated in St. Petersburg., he had then emigrated with his parents after the revolution of 1917.  The family moved to Berlin where there was already a large Russian emigrant community.

By then he spoke several languages – Russian, of course, and French, German and, probably, Yiddish.  But that would not earn him a living in Berlin. Linguists were numerous so he decided to study languages that few others knew. He chose Chinese and Japanese. He said he thought he was the first translate an essay by man no one in the West had ever heard of – but who became well known later as Chairman Mao.

With the rise of the Nazis, life in Germany became increasingly difficult for a Jew. He migrated to England but there, too, he found it difficult to make a living. By now England, too, had a surfeit of emigres. He offered translations from the writings that few in England knew. He got an interview at the BBC. They were considering establishing a monitoring service. If war were to break out – and Hitler’s expansionist dreams made this increasingly likely – they might have to check on what the potential enemy – the Germans – were saying.  He was “short listed “.  It sounded a step in the right direction but being on such a list does not provide a meal.

“What precisely does it mean?” he asked them.

“If war does break out,” they told him, “we will need you. We would have a job for you.”

“So,” he told me years later “I thought to myself: What shall I hope for? Peace on earth and goodwill among all men …or the end of this, my misery?”  He spread out his hands as if calling on the gods to come and provide an answer. “Fortunately ….world history never not asked my opinion.”